A flight guide to Iran’s coronavirus economic meltdown

The devastating economic effect of the isolation can be seen in the flights by the Iranian air carriers which continue to fly.

A medical team sprays disinfectant to sanitize Imam Reza's holy shrine, following the coronavirus outbreak, in Mashhad, Iran (photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
A medical team sprays disinfectant to sanitize Imam Reza's holy shrine, following the coronavirus outbreak, in Mashhad, Iran
Hand on heart, every Iranian expert knows how hard it is to get reliable data on Iran. The mystery extends from basic macroeconomic figures to government expenditures and allocations and how much oil and gas Iran sells.
Figuring out the full extent of the COVID-19 epidemic in Iran is as baffling as finding figures on government expenditures, only more deadly. For weeks, the Iranian authorities churned out data of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths that defied the worldwide ratio of those testing positive and deaths from the virus.
Instead of the nearly world-wide ratio of one death to 30 infections, the Iranians were reporting a ratio of one to less than 14; a number that reflected either ignorance of what was happening or deliberate disinformation or, most probably, an element of both.
Fortunately, there are figures that cannot be doctored that reflect important realities on the ground.
This is the tale behind the lists of flight arrivals in the two major Iranian airports: Khomeini International Airport, the major Iranian access point to the outside world; and the older Mehrabad Airport, Iran’s busiest airport for domestic flights.
Flight activity in both airports shows in no uncertain terms the extent of economic meltdown in Iran caused by the coronavirus that came in the wake of punishing sanctions the Trump administration imposed beginning in 2018.
Before the sanctions were imposed, on average, 100 flights mostly from abroad, landed in Khomeini Airport each day, and 130 flights landed in Merhabad, the nexus point for domestic flights from Iran’s far-flung cities.
Flight activity began falling after the second round of sanctions were imposed in the fall of 2018, to approximately 60 flights per day in Khomeini Airport and 100 flights in Merhabad, a steep decline from previous levels.
The dive in the number of landings turned into a plunging crash as news of Iran’s epidemic unfolded, especially in international flights. A look at arrivals in Khomeini airport for March 3, 2020 revealed a list of 32 flights, with 11 cancellations, for a net of 21 landings.
Yet a day later, bringing up the data again, showed that of the 22 flights scheduled to land, only five actually did so. In addition to the 11 cancellations that brought down the figure to 21 landings, 10 of the flights were listed as “unknown” (which Israel often identifies as being flights dealing with arms transports), and six were listed as “scheduled” but never arrived. Significantly, all the five planes that actually landed were Iranian carriers.
MOST OF the plunge into international quarantine and isolation of Iran can be attributed to the fiat of governments which compelled air carriers to cease flights to Iran out of a sense that the Iranian authorities had lost control over the epidemic at least for the time being.
The devastating economic effect of the isolation can be seen in the flights by the Iranian air carriers which continue to fly. Of the eight scheduled flights to Istanbul, Iran’s major gateway to the outside world, none actually landed. Obviously, they were canceled because of lack of demand. The same was true of the Iranian carriers from Doha and Dubai, two major connections for Iran to the outside world.
Economics explains why many of these planes did not land; it is politics that is probably behind some of the five landings. Two of the five were from Chinese destinations – Shanghai and Shenzhen – and one was Beirut, where Hezbollah, Iran’s major proxy, is centered.
Iranians have accused their government of continuing flights unabated with China despite the linkage between the Chinese source of COVID-19 and its spread to Iran due to political and economic reasons. China is the Iran’s major friendly power compared to its more problematic relationships with Turkey and Russia and heavily invested in Iranian energy production. In this case, the linkage between politics and the coronavirus crisis is truly pathological.
Iran’s domestic travel has nearly come to a complete halt as well. Of the 89 flight landings in Mehrabad from domestic Iranian destinations scheduled for March 3, only 27 actually landed. The overwhelming remainder were listed as “unknown.” Recall that in better days, 130 landings took place daily.
All told, there were 32 landings in both airports, which service three provinces with a total population of at least 17 million. At Cairo Airport, in a country with half the standard of living of Iranians, there were on the same day 211 flights to the airport, even in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
Iran’s leaders started praying for President Trump’s political downfall long before the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries. They were probably relieved to see Joe Biden’s strong comeback in the hope that he will defeat Trump and ease America’s harsh sanctions.
They have plenty to pray about. No such relief is on the horizon regarding the coronavirus epidemic. The economic devastation resulting from the crisis can only increase the anxiety and anger of the Iranian population toward the disease, the way the government handled it, and for their leaders transforming Iran from a nexus of civilizations to an international pariah.
In the early years of the Iranian revolution, the ayatollahs extolled the Islamic Republic as the beacon of the “downtrodden.” They hardly imagined that more than 40 years later they would be ruling some 80 million of them.
The writer is a professor at the Bar-Ilan University Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies departments.